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SPIRAL: Up & Out

September 5 – October 13, 2019

Monroe-Brown Gallery

Curated by Indra Lācis, PhD, Director of Exhibitions, with support from Clara Peeters, B.F.A, Curatorial Assistant, University Art Collection

In July of 1963, amidst the tumult of the civil rights movement, four African American artists—Romare Bearden, Hale Woodruff, Norman Lewis, and Charles Alston—founded the arts alliance Spiral in New York City to investigate their attitudes and commitments during the country’s ongoing fight for civil liberties. While at first the group focused primarily on the March on Washington which would take place in August of that year, Spiral quickly evolved to question larger issues of race and aesthetics; eleven more artists joined—Emma Amos, Calvin Douglass, Perry Ferguson, Reginald Gammon, Felrath Hines, Alvin Hollingsworth, William Majors, Richard Mayhew, Earl Miller, Merton D. Simpson, and James Yeargans. Active for two years until 1965, the modernist artists comprising Spiral emerged as one of the first major groups in post-WWII America to position the role of the artist as an agent of change in politics, civic, and social life.

Organized as a companion to a suite of three exhibitions featuring African American artists at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts this fall, the exhibition Spiral: Up & Out highlights a range of stylistic tendencies, reflecting myriad ways Spiral members responded to their shared but individualized experiences as Black artists fighting for civil rights. Based on major works Western Michigan University’s Art Collection—including a new acquision of a print of Emma Amos—and generous loans from Michigan collections, Spiral: Up & Out features more than half of the group’s original members, including Amos and Richard Mayhew, the only two living participants of the collective. Significantly, this exhibition features work by Spiral artists made before, after, and during the group’s activities. In this way, the concept for the exhibition Spiral: Up & Out echoes its title, namely the momentum that led to and followed Spiral’s formation.

Named by Hale Woodruff in reference to the Greek mathematician Archimedes’ concept of a spiral moving up and out at a constant rate, the group’s designation as Spiral also relates metaphorically to the notion of a thumb or fingerprint—a similar form that is incredibly singular but also common to all. As Spiral: Up & Out endeavors to show, this expressively disparate group of Black artists explored identity, aesthetics, as well as social and cultural revolution, without conforming to established Western ideals. For even as the group’s weekly meetings at 147 Christopher Street took shape around heated debates regarding the responsibilities of Black artists during the civil rights movement, each member’s output was shaped by their individual aesthetic disposition. This is epitomized in Jeanne Siegel’s 1966 ARTnews interview with Spiral artists who, when asked to define “what Spiral stands for,” offered wide-ranging definitions.

Spiral: Up & Out follows less than half a dozen exhibitions by or about Spiral artists as a group. Exhibiting together first in 1965, First Group Showing: Works in Black and White sought to counter the fact that major museums tended to ignore African American artists, seldom including their work in statement shows, such as MoMA’s 1963 Americans, which opened two months before Spiral’s first group meeting. Sidelined for decades by mainstream art history, Spiral artists first became the focus of an exhibition at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama in 2010; after originating there, Spiral: Perspectives of an African-American Art Collective traveled to the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2011. Since then, the Spiral arts alliance has been the subject of exhibitions at Smithsonian Institute’s Anacostia Community Museum in Washington DC, and Evolve the Gallery in Sacramento, CA. Next fall, Spiral: Up & Out at the Richmond Center will highlight works by Spiral artists held in Michigan collections while also looking toward a renewed and deeper understanding of Spiral’s positioning of the “artist as activist” and the relevance of such a stance today.

Opening reception & preview for lenders, exhibition partners, Richmond Center members and Frostic School of Art students:  Wednesday, September 4, 2019, 5:00 – 7:00pm MyWMU.com/FriendsofRCVA